View Full Version : Civil War photographic equipment?

11-Jul-2009, 20:47
I was rewatching Ken Burns' "The Civil War," when it suddenly occured to me "what size plates were these images made on" and what lens focal lengths were generally used?
After spending an hour surfing the web trying to find any hints, all that I found was that (probably) most of the images were made on 3x6 stereo plates, but couldn't find anything at all about the straight "scenic" photographs. The portraits, of course, were mostly tintypes of about 4x5 or 4 shots on a single 7x9 wet negative, or perhaps quarter-plate.
I'm sure that many of the views were taken with more than one size camera, but I could find no specific information! Surely 8x10 (or perhaps full-plate) were most common? Perhaps some of the time megasize cameras were used (or did these only come after the War by O'Sullivan and Watkins, etc)?
The Rapid-Rectilinear lens hadn't been invented, so I expect that mostly focal lengths of 2X the plate width were required (our optical standard of focal length=plate diagonal would not have been likely).
Any information would be appreciated.Thanks.

Bill McMannis
12-Jul-2009, 09:20
You should be able answer all your questions at www.civilwarphotography.com

12-Jul-2009, 11:16
Thanks, Bill -- that's where I found out about the 3x6 Stereo negatives, but couldn't find anything about full size images.
Dann, It's a great resource, but apparently the librarians don't consider the size of the original negative worth mentioning. Your reference to the Matthew Brady Book is exactly part of what I was hoping for.
Thanks, Guys.

Mark Sawyer
12-Jul-2009, 15:03
I was rewatching Ken Burns' "The Civil War," when it suddenly occured to me "what size plates were these images made on" and what lens focal lengths were generally used?

I haven't seen this documented anywhere, just my own observation, but...

There seems to have been a lot less standardization back then. Many cameras of that era were very basic and made by local cabinet makers, plate holders (such as they were) were simple one-sided things, and plate size was whatever you had cut by the local glazier. For largish images, whole plate (6.5 x 8.5 inches) was the most common, but there was a lot of variation from that.

There were standard-sized mounting cards for prints, but in the early wet-plate days, it wasn't unusual to use a slightly larger plate so you could trim the imperfections that often occurred near the edges.

For cased images, such as ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, etc.), there were standard sized plates: whole-, half-, quarter, sixth-, eighth-, etc., and the "trimming" was done with an oval or other-shaped mask. There, you were stuck with the standard sizes because the plate had to fit the case.

The detail from the old images can be remarkable, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the images Burns used were from faily small originals...

12-Jul-2009, 18:51
Mark is right, I believe it was quite variable. Some iterate photographers made their small portraits of say 1/6 plate. Bigger, better funded ones like Brady shot larger sizes such as whole plate or larger.

Landscapes would have been shot with meniscus lenses usually mounted in a pillbox barrel. Dallmeyer made a triple achromat starting in 1861, as well as Rapid Landscape lens starting in 1864. Other makes were available also, from France, Germany, as well as America. They were slow, at about f11 or f15 or so. They used washer stops that fit in the front of the barrel. Portraits were done with petzvals because of their speed, but probably petzvals weren't used for landscapes very often.